I have been thinking a lot about courage in preparation for this week’s Finish the Sentence Friday, in which we are to share the bravest thing we’ve ever done. I don’t consider “courage” to be one of my defining attributes- I’m kind of a wuss, and I care too much about other people’s opinions to act “out of the box” very often. Which makes me not very brave. I tried to remember if there was a moment when my quick-thinking and level-headed disposition saved one of my children from a near-disaster. Then I remembered that I am neither quick-thinking nor level-headed.
And I wondered- can it be considered brave to merely survive something challenging? Is it innately courageous to come out the other end of a stressful tunnel, when there really isn’t any alternative but to get through it? I’ve decided that yes, it is sometimes brave simply to make the best of a scary situation. Which is why I’m going to go out on a limb and say,
The bravest thing I ever did was to give birth to my second daughter, Sophie, two years ago, after an extremely challenging pregnancy.
See what I mean? How is it brave that I endured a pregnancy? But I will give myself credit for this- I could have fallen apart, had I really stepped back from the situation to see precisely how miserable I was. I didn’t really have the perspective until I was many months removed from the situation. So here’s what happened:
As soon as I got pregnant, I started experiencing regular heartburn. Not that jarring, right, given that indigestion and heartburn can frequently accompany a pregnancy? Then I started to have difficulty swallowing. One night, when I was in my early second trimester, my dinner got stuck in my throat and I threw up every ten minutes for hours. I couldn’t even drink water. My OB quickly decided I needed a GI consult, and in the meantime, put me on a medication that would help me swallow.
The medication worked surprisingly well, and although ideally, an immediate endoscopy would be the best course of action, in light of my pregnancy we decided to wait until after delivery. The next few months passed with regular bouts of heartburn, but without any additional frightening experiences. However, by my third trimester, I continued to have frequent reflux, increasing difficulty swallowing both food and liquid, and I often woke up choking.
Every time I would have an appointment with my OB or GI doctor, we would form a new hypothesis about what might be causing these symptoms, but it boiled down to this- nobody had any idea what was wrong with me. This purgatory of not knowing seemed to be a recurring theme in my life; it wasn’t the first time I experienced unusual medication symptoms and waited months for a diagnosis. Those who have endured unexplained medical conditions or watched their children suffer without a diagnosis understand what a uniquely maddening situation this can be.
By the end of my pregnancy, I was attempting to choke down a daily cocktail of ineffective medications in between vomiting episodes. I had to quit my job after one unfortunate morning, in which I spent the minutes preceding my class throwing up in the bathroom; I walked into my classroom in tears, finally realizing that there was no way I could do my job anymore. It wasn’t worth it. I felt a mixture of desperation and relief when I walked out to my car that morning, knowing that I would spend the remaining month of my pregnancy at home on the couch, clocking in as a professional up-chucker.
Every 5-7 days I would go to the hospital to receive several bags of fluids, as I was so dehydrated that my bi-weekly urine samples looked like a shot of orange juice. I would rejoice when a small bowl of mashed potatoes stayed down, even though I knew it was the only a matter of hours before I would be throwing up again. I gave up drinking water all together, and sipped ginger ale throughout the day, celebrating whenever I managed to retain 20 ounces of fluid in one day.
I was a wreck, and my medical team still had no idea what was the cause of my bizarre swallowing and vomiting. My OB team didn’t seem overly concerned; likely they had seen many cases of hyper-emesis in their careers, but I knew my condition was more complicated. I couldn’t swallow anything. They performed several ultrasounds to confirm the fact that my unborn baby was a healthy size and thriving despite the lack of incoming nutrients. My extreme dehydration resulted in contractions that added to my discomfort; as if it weren’t already uncomfortable to spend 8 hours a day flopping around on the couch like a beached whale watching 10 daily episodes of The Closer. But who was I to complain? I had suffered an ectopic pregnancy several months prior to conceiving Sophie, and the fact that my baby was healthy dwarfed the importance of my own health and comfort.
My husband maintained a sense of absolute calm and responded neutrally whenever I would stand up from the dinner table to go barf in the sink, or worse yet, throw up into the car trashcan while we were running errands. I think his unflappable temperament may have been the only reason I never actually lost my shit and succumbed to panic: “Oh my GOD, I’m nine months pregnant, I’m not gaining any weight, I can’t drink water, and I can’t swallow my food! I’m going to DIE!!!”
As it turns out, I had a condition known as achalacia, in which my esophagus had become peaked, resulting in a lack of muscle propulsion to push my food down. Additionally, the muscle at the bottom of the esophagus remains tight, which causes food and liquid to get stuck on its way down. This condition had absolutely nothing to do with my pregnancy- it was simply a bad coincidence.
When my daughter was 2 weeks old, I had the endoscopy that confirmed this diagnosis. Everybody hoped that my symptoms would go away after delivery, but they didn’t, and I couldn’t stand to experience one more day or week of throwing up. When Sophie was 3 weeks old, my GI doctor performed a procedure that successfully opened my esophagus again, and though I may always be on medication and finish meals freakishly slowly, I am able to eat normally again.
Sophie turns 2 years old this weekend (sob!) and I can hardly believe that I made it through this surreal, disorienting, sometimes terrifying experience. Does that make me brave? I’m not sure. The actually birth of my daughter was one of the most powerful and redeeming experiences I have ever had, and perhaps even an act of bravery in and of itself. If you are the type of person who enjoys reading birth stories, (I totally am) you can read this post I wrote a year ago in honor of my daughter’s first birthday. It’s a happy birth story, in case you were worried that the post is a chronicle of 57 hours of labor followed by an emergency C-section.
I know there are people who have survived far, far worse than I have, and in addition to those brave folks, there are people who have made a conscious choice to do something selfless or heroic. Read the links below for Finish the Sentence Friday, and maybe you’ll find one of those stories! But I think at the end of a harrowing experience, even mere survival can be an act of courage.
Oh, and happy second birthday, Sophie. You were worth every second of misery.